If changes are made this year to FAA regulations regarding GPS-guided drones, the use of these aerial vehicles in various healthcare applications may rapidly increase.
Under current FAA regulations, GPS-guided drones are not allowed to fly beyond the eyesight of the operator. While occasional exceptions have been made for healthcare uses, the existing policy severely limits drone use. The FAA is said to be developing a new policy for medical drones in the near future.
In the meantime, various healthcare innovators are looking into uses for drones and testing them for those uses. Imagine not having to depend on motor vehicles driving through traffic to deliver items such as medications, blood products and lab samples – drones can fly right over traffic congestion.
Some real-life examples of drone use in US healthcare settings include:
- HiRO (Health Integrated Rescue Operations). The HiRO drone is intended for first-responder use in emergency situations. The drone was developed by students at Hinds Community College and Willam Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Mississippi. It was inspired by the devastation from a tornado in 2013 where debris prevented emergency vehicles from getting to where they were needed. The HiRO unit contains:
- A medical kit with supplies to treat up to 100 people
- An AV connection and a pair of smartglasses which allow bystanders and first responders to connect with a doctor remotely.
- Flirtey, Part I. There are many remote areas in the US that are some distance from healthcare facilities and can quickly become inaccessible due to extreme weather and other situations. A collaboration between Flirtey (an Australian drone delivery service), Remote Area Medical (an international non-profit organization), NASA and the Health Wagon (a mobile health program that serves remote areas of southwest Virginia) used drones to transport medications from an airport to the location of a health fair being held for area residents a mile away from the airport.
- Flirtey, Part II. In a demonstration involving Flirtey, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Field Innovation Team (a non-profit that works to create disaster solutions), drones laden with medical supplies were flown from a supply ship off the coast of New Jersey to a medical camp at Cape May then back to the ship.
In other parts of the world, drones have been used to:
- Deliver automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to the location of a 911 caller in Sweden.
- Deliver contraceptives to women in very remote villages in Africa.
- Transport blood and stool samples from remote villages in Madagascar to a research center (also in Madagascar) for testing.
- Supply hospitals in Rwanda with blood products.
Zipline, a California company supplying the drones used in Rwanda, is planning to launch a drone delivery service to transport blood and medications to remote areas of Nevada, Maryland and Washington. Native American reservations are also part of the plan.
There are barriers to using drones – regulatory and otherwise. For example, drones can pose a hazard to low-flying aircraft. Drone regulations will need to be written by legislators to ensure the vehicles can be used effectively but safely. But it is clear that drones have a future in healthcare delivery.